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Library of Congress: 75 percent of silent films lost

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A lobby card for the 1924 Gloria Swanson pic “Manhandled,” which only exists in a 16mm print and with only five of seven reels surviving. (Variety)

A research study from the Library of Congress reveals for the first time how many feature films produced by U.S. studios during the silent film era still exist, what condition they’re in and where they are located.

To no one’s surprise, the news is bleak. Only 14 percent of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format, according to the report, “The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.”  Another 11 percent survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality.

The report was authored by film historian and archivist David Pierce under commission by the Library’s 25 year-old National Film Preservation Board. It was published by the Council on Library and Information Resources.

By focusing on the titles that survive in leading archives and private collections throughout the world, the study is intended to complement existing data on specific films that have been preserved and restored, and which are commercially available.  An accompanying inventory database identifies the silent-era film elements known to have survived, as well as their locations within collections throughout the world.

“This information will make it possible to develop a nationally coordinated plan to repatriate those ‘lost’ American movies and ensure that they are preserved before higher losses occur,” says James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress. The library hopes that the report will spur collaborative repatriations on a large scale, and that stakeholders will prioritize projects and help address financial concerns.

Billington says the report finally confirms the anecdotal information about lost pics that has long been available, especially about films of the most celebrated U.S. filmmakers. It enables the Library to authoritatively report that “we have lost 75 percent of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century.”

The repatriation proposal is one of six recommendations offered in the study. It also suggests that studios and rights holders collaborate to acquire archival master film elements of unique titles. For example, many of the films preserved by MGM in the 1960s are not yet held by any American archive, it notes.

It also encourages the coordination among U.S. archives and collectors to identify silent films surviving only in small-gauge formats (particularly 28mm, 16mm and 9.5mm).  It claims that the largest cache of unexplored surviving titles is the 432 U.S. silent feature films that survive only in 16mm.

Finally, the report suggests that initiatives be launched to document unidentified titles in the hands of American and foreign film archives, and to encourage the exhibition and rediscovery of feature films held by the general public and the scholarly community.

The report received a thumbs up from film preservation advocate Martin Scorsese, who’s film “Hugo” — along with Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” — was a tribute to the silent film era. “This report is invaluable because the artistry of silent film is essential to our culture,” said Scorsese.

Billington called the report a model for the type of fact-based archival research that remains to be conducted on all genres of American film beyond the scope of silent-era feature films. He says the same level of scrutiny remains to be applied to all historically significant audiovisual media produced since the 19th century, including sound recordings and radio and TV broadcasts.

Under Billington’s leadership, the Library has worked diligently to win repatriation of missing silent films held in archives around the world. Examples include a “mother lode” of some 200 missing silent films that have been stored for more than 80 years by the Russian film archive Gosfilmofond. The Russian archive is thought to contain the largest cache of lost U.S. silent films outside the U.S.

Three years ago, the archive presented the Library with digitally preserved copies of 10 previously lost U.S. films. The cache included the 1923 pic “The Call of the Canyon” directed by Victor Fleming, the 1924 film “The Arab” helmed by Rex Ingram, and two films featuring actor Wallace Reid.

“The silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternative form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the sound films that followed,” the study notes. “Few art forms emerged as quickly, came to an end as suddenly, or vanished more completely than the silent film.”

Both the report and a database of archival film holdings identified during the research can be found at www.loc.gov/film.

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